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News From Goa: Fast, Cheap And Truly Independent

WhatsApp, local ads and loyal patrons ensure small independent news media setups in Goa don’t succumb to pressures of money and muscle of the rich and powerful

News From Goa: Fast, Cheap And Truly Independent
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The voice on the other end of the phone sounded cautious. As the conversation picked up pace, the person became fri­e­ndlier. Caution is the price Niraj Naik, founder of Digital Goa, has to pay for not succ­umbing to the pressures of money and muscle might of the rich and powerful in Goa. In the years since May 5, 2005, when he launched the digital news service, looking over his shoulder has involuntarily become second nature. With threats piling up at his doorstep, he has learnt an important lesson: there is no replacement for caution. Digital Goa, a daily “breaking” news service is available only to subscribers through WhatsApp.

The news flashes have caused discomfort to many, if the threats of dire consequences by powerful politicians, casino owners and mining companies are anything to go by. An advertisement-free service, Naik says it is this revenue independence that helps him feel free from the pressures of powerful politicians and corporates.

When it was launched nearly 20 years ago, the news service was only available to subscribers through a short messaging service (SMS). As mobile technology evolved over the last two decades, Digital Goa adapted to the changing dimensions and decided to take the WhatsApp route. “SMS was initially good to make our presence felt in the market, but the limited size of characters did not allow us to elaborate the news. Besides, it was a very expensive service for us,” Naik tells Outlook. “Being an independent service, it is possible to innovate and give the subscribers news before the newspaper or TV,” Naik informs. A sizeable number of journalists from Goa and other parts of India subscribe to the news service to keep in touch with the happenings of Goa. He is, however, unwilling to reveal the size of the subscription base but says it has the who’s who of Goa on its list.

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Digital Goa is completely ad-free, a fact that subscribers appreciate. Naik has a list of those who are interested to advertise for the news service, but has resolutely stayed away from it, despite the stress to keep up the revenue flow. According to Naik, his independent venture continues to be India’s only subscription-based news service. “Our service has won recognition through several awards. The most prominent of them is the mBillionth Award (2018), bestowed annually for mobile innovations in South Asia.”

Every morning, the first bulletin lists all excl­u­sive stories from popular newspapers, menti­oning their sources. This is the warm-up for the subscribers before they are hit with hard breaking news throughout the day. There are no fixed daily bulletins as the periodicity is fired by the happenings of the day, says Naik. During the 2022 Assembly polls in Goa, at least seven daily bulletins were listing the latest news of the hour. “Number of subscribers picked up significantly during this period. The political happeni­ngs were such that they were getting something new every hour. Even now after the polls, our news flashes on the political movements are picked up by other media,” says Naik.

The morning’s first bulletin lists exclusive stories from newspapers, menti­oning their sources. This is followed by hard news all through the day.

Four years ago, full-time journalist Rupesh Samant and three of his friends from the media joined hands to set up Goanewshub (Goa News Hub), a news portal for breaking news. They wanted to set up something that would break stereotypes in journalism and “break stories as and when they happen’’. They viewed Twitter as the ideal platform for this vision and that was the beginning, narrates Samant, founder-editor of Goanewshub. “We decided to run it on a no-revenue basis, and hence decided not to take any salary. Four of us pooled in our own resour­ces to start the website,” said Samant to Outlook. The portal with the tagline Website That Never Sleeps–Truly Goan, provides news as and when it happens, and posts breaking news stories simultaneously on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

Unlike Digital Goa, Goanewshub is not subsc­r­iption-based. Samant and his team circulate the links of their stories that are posted on soc­ial media across various WhatsApp groups. “We send our links on 150-plus Goa-based Whats­App groups that gives us a reach of 1.5 lakh viewers,” notes Samant, whose previous stints were with OHeraldo, Navhind Times, Sunapa­r­ant (a Konkani daily) and Press Trust of India. The venture started with four members, and has 10 employees now; the size of the organisation has been kept small to avoid huge salary bills. “We are balancing income and liabilities so that we do not shut down due to financial losses,” says the Panaji-based scribe.

Unlike Naik who has sworn off advertiseme­nts, Samant has started accepting advertiseme­nts. In the past, Goanewshub functioned as a no-loss-no-profit making venture, and it operated without any advertisements. However, it was during the Covid-19 pandemic that one of the first of the advertisements from a manufacturer of sanitizers and masks, found a place on the news portal. This was a starting point when they embarked on advertising on Twitter. Since then, the flow of advertisements has increased during and post the Covid era, reveals Samant.

The advent of mobiles in India and popularity of SMS made Naik shift to breaking news service via SMS in 2005, which later shifted to WhatsApp.

This portal has a mix of everything—Hub Encounter section for video interviews, travel show Passay, analytical stories, blogs, and Hub Express—the highly popular candid interview segment. Goanewshub uses sophisticated cameras and drones for on the ground reporting that has been translated into in-depth, analytical pieces. Viewership picked up considerably during the elections. “We sort out any differences with those who have an issue with our stories through conversations, so no threats have come our way. We have consciously decided to not align ourselves with any politicians or political parties. Corporate advertisements are our only source of income. Our business model is very limited so that we do not face any shortage of funds,” says Samant.

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Writer, political commentator and human rights activist Rajan Solomon has been a subscriber of Digital Goa since 2008. The Curto­rim-based activist told Outlook that Digital Goa had helped him become a “news enquirer inst­ead of a news reader”. It is the quality and the standard of the content that has kept him glued to the news service all these years. Even his wife is a subscriber, and both do not want to share their subscriptions with each other. “I get the news before the newspapers. When one is on the move, it becomes difficult to access the news on TV. Digital Goa is handy and gives me breaking news and other updates of Goa. Even when we are travelling, we do not lose out on what is happening in Goa,” Solomon explains.

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Naik’s stint in journalism began in the newsroom of OHeraldo, one of the most popular newspapers in Goa. Then, he was with the Janmabhoomi group in Delhi, and thereafter a stringer for IANS (India Abroad News Service) in Kuala Lumpur. After returning to Goa, Naik got involved with numerous environmental movements and the fight to make Konkani as Goa’s official language. This strong identity struggle pushed Naik towards starting his own venture that was by a Goan for only Goans. “It is a big struggle to remain free and fair. I have only part-time employees as I cannot pay big salaries. It is a miracle that I am still alive with all these threats,” says Naik. For Samant too, it is a struggle to maintain an independent stand on the content.

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Prior to the daily news service, Digital Goa was a fortnightly magazine launched in 2002. The advent of mobiles in India and the popularity of the SMS service made Naik shift and adapt to a new form of communication­—the digital breaking news service via SMS in 2005, which later shifted to WhatsApp. Starting with a team of four, he now has 11 employees, all part-time.

Reporting on the 2022 Goa Assembly polls has been a huge challenge for the news service. “There was so much money being pumped into the media houses. Paid news has been on a very large scale this time. From small to very large, everyone got the money push. We were appro­ached but we did not succumb to it. I am very clear about not pandering to politicians and political parties,” says Naik. Though he has recei­ved multiple threats, it has not watered down the tone of the content. Neither has he wavered.

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After working with OHeraldo for 24 years, Suraj Nandrekar, decided to move on and set up two websites in English and Marathi. Today, he is the editor-director of Goemkar­ponn, an e-paper published in the two languages. Six months later, he started an e-paper, while retaining both websites.

Like Naik and Samant, Nandrekar too, believes that it is the breaking news category which brings readers to the newspaper and its websites. “We upload breaking news to the broadcast list of our subscribers on WhatsApp. As we post the links on all WhatsApp groups in Goa, we receive requests for our free subscriptions. We started with two staff members 18 months ago, and have now grown to 15,” wrote Nandrekar in a WhatsApp interview with Outlook.

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Goemkarponn is completely monetised through advertisements. However, Nandrekar says he does not compromise on the content and adds he is not aligned to any political party. Goem­kar­ponn’s investigative reports have had many hits, if the threats are a barometer to gauge the impact. “I have received numerous threats as a journalist. However, my urge to bring out the truth helps me stay independent of other pressures. I have lost many friends in the bargain,” he says.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Fast, Cheap and Truly Independent")

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